moonage reverie, a film about David Bowie, opens with “Hallo Spaceboy”, a deep cut from his 1995 album Outside. It’s clear from the use of this song that Brett Morgen is not making a traditional documentary about the Thin White Duke.
“I was completely trolling,” Morgen admits.
But the use of a relatively dark industrial track from later in Bowie’s career illustrates what the director is trying to achieve. He seeks to tell the story of Bowie’s work as an experience or a feeling, full of “chaos” and “fragmentation”, rather than a chronological visual biography. This is something that many music documentaries do not attempt.
Morgen says that there are many books and other documentaries about David Bowie that tell this version of the story.
“What can I offer that you can’t get on Wikipedia? it is an experience. It is something intangible. The great thing about Bowie is the mystery and the enigma,” he adds.
Morgen, who is the first filmmaker to have access to the entire Bowie archive, mixes this personal footage with previously unseen performances, Bowie’s own words and music, collected over 50 years, and clips from A Clockwork Orange, The Wizard of Oz Y Bounty hunter.
He admits his worst fear was facing a devoted fanbase expecting a biography full of interviews with the likes of Iggy Pop, who collaborated (and got clean) with Bowie in Berlin in the ’70s. , why would you want me to put it in the movie? Unfortunately, you probably closed yourself off from having what could have been a really interesting experience, because you wanted me to recite the facts that you already know.”
The film, which is being distributed by Neon and Universal Pictures, opens in IMAX theaters today before opening and then airing on HBO. Morgen wrote, directed, produced and edited the film himself, a complicated process that stemmed from a heart attack and took four years longer than planned.
“The only thing I can share with David artistically and creatively is that I make things very difficult for myself,” he says. “There was a moment five years after this when I was watching the Bee Gees documentary, which I loved. I cried, because I thought, why can’t I do this? This seems so seamless and like something you wouldn’t have to kill yourself to do. But I don’t have that. I don’t know what it is in me that I like to forge new adventures. I pride myself on not redoing The boy stays in the picture and trying different paths.”
Morgen has directed several other music documentaries, including crossfire hurricanethe story of the early career of the Rolling Stones up to 1981 which was produced by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heckabout the leader of Nirvana, throughout his career.
but he says that Moon Age Reverie will be the last. “The other night in Toronto… I said this would be my last music document and probably my last archival document. Because if I didn’t say that, I would never be able to do it. That could have forced me into a position where I’m going to betray myself or now I’m locked up.”
Moon Age Reverie it’s a visceral film and could arguably only have been made about an artist like David Bowie, who was constantly reinventing himself and thinking about his work in a more philosophical way than most artists.
But it also highlights the challenges of the genre. Movies like DA Pennebaker’s landmark Bob Dylan documentary do not look back and the controversial documentary cinema verité by Robert Frank Blues motherfuckerabout the Rolling Stones’ riotous 1972 American tour, have largely been replaced by lukewarm hagiographies about pop stars with a hit record (which they themselves produced).
There are exceptions, of course, like Peter Jackson’s. ReturnTodd Haynes the velvet subway and Questlove’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the revolution could not be televised) but they are a minority.
Morgen says that one of the reasons innovation in the form of documentaries is hard to come by is because the networks and streaming services that finance most of these documentaries demand the final cut.
He is reminded of a fight he had with ESPN over his 30 for 30 doc. June 17, 1994, which analyzed the sporting events that occurred during the police pursuit of OJ Simpson. It did not have interviews.
“I said if you want to do interviews, you can take the film down but… if you do that, it will be watered down. I remember watching that first season and being a little disappointed that the movies fit into anything and I think it’s because of the network notes. They know what they are doing. They know what their audience wants, but it does homogenize the work”, he adds.
Obviously this was not the case. Moon-age reverie. Morgen says that she is having the best summer of her life touring this film.
“I was so creatively sated making this movie. The only reason to do another one after this one is to use some of the lessons I learned making this one, but other than that… I put everything I had into this movie.”